JENIN, West Bank — When Cinema Jenin reopened last week after being shuttered for 23 years, one of the first people to walk its red carpet was Zakaria Zubeidi. He wore a blue polo shirt, jeans, black boots and the scars of a botched effort to build a bomb on his pockmarked face.
But like his city, which was once a notorious militant center in the West Bank, the former chief of the Jenin Al-Aqsa Martryrs Brigade laid down his arms in 2007 and has since poured his energy into overthrowing Israeli rule through an explosion in the arts.
“We will create new politicians through culture,” Zubeidi, 33, told GlobalPost.
The picture house was born in film. In 2005 Israeli soldiers shot Ahmed Khatib, 12, when they mistook his toy gun for a real one. His father Ismael donated the boy's organs to six Jewish and Arab Israelis. German filmmaker Marcus Vetter and Qalqilya native Fakhri Hamad, who met while documenting Khatib’s decision in "Heart of Jenin" (2008), looked for a local venue to screen it. Built in 1957, the two-story Cinema Jenin had once shown Egyptian movies, Bruce Lee flicks and even porn before closing in the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 1987.
The Palestinian Authority and the German Foreign Ministry bankrolled most of the $1.4-million renovation. Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters donated a sound system. For two years, 500 German and a few dozen local Palestinian volunteers designed the cinema’s public relations material, reupholstered its chairs and laid floor tiles.
Ten days before the cinema opening, Hamad shouted to two men high on a scaffold in the dusty cinema: “Mike, Alyosha, come for eissen!” The German volunteers clambered down and headed to a table loaded with salad and rice.
“We want to make Jenin more open-minded to other cultures,” Hamad said.
Unlike the Palestinian uprisings, Jenin’s cultural movement can involve Israelis. Hamad said the cinema hosted a teacher and student from Jerusalem's Sam Speigel school of film and Tel Aviv Cinematheque Director Alon Garbuz was scheduled to speak at the festival but backed out at the last minute.
“If they believe the Palestinians have the right to have their own country and live in freedom, [Israelis] are welcome,” Hamad said. “Settlers are not welcome. Soldiers are not welcome.”
The arts resistance is not confined to film. A short taxi ride away, in the darkened Freedom Theater in July, seven young actors shouted “Tiyara!” (Arabic for plane) and hit the ground in a reconstructed 1948 Palestinian refugee camp. They were rehearsing "Men in the Sun" (1962) penned by Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani 10 years before his assassination by the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.
The Freedom Theater began with the late Arna Mer, a Jewish Israeli woman who moved to Jenin to teach acting to Palestinian children, including Zubeidi, before she died in 1995. But the theater she built them did not survive the second intifada.
In the first two years of the uprising, which began in 2000, Jenin sent 28 suicide bombers into Israel. In response, Israeli soldiers bulldozed football field-sized holes into the densely packed refugee camp. The battle left 54 Palestinians and 23 Israelis dead. The theater was razed after two of Mer’s young actors used it as a base for attacking Israeli soldiers. Another two young actors died after gunning down four Israelis at a bus stop north of Tel Aviv. A fifth died from an Israeli missile attack.
Mer’s son, Juliano, created the film Arna's Children in 2003, patching together footage of his mother running rehearsals in fluent Arabic along with the sad epilogue of the actors. Three years later he rebuilt the theater in the refugee camp. Now the rifles are only props.
Eyad Hurani, 22, plays a refugee in this season’s play and volunteered at Cinema Jenin’s opening.
“The first acting school in Palestine is the Freedom Theater,” said Hurani, who moved from Ramallah to Jenin to study theater. “It’s my big dream to study theater.”
Beyond the Freedom Theater and Cinema Jenin, music is also being used to help rebuild the nation. On a July Monday, Mays Ghasan, 13, played Haydn on a cello painted with tiny Palestinian flags on the bridge. The late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish gazed down from a photograph on the wall of the rehearsal room at the Kamandjati School of Music.
Eyad Staiti, 35, who plays the stringed Middle Eastern instrument called an oud, founded the school in 2007. One of 12 children who grew up in a Jenin refugee family, Staiti met Palestinian musical protege Ramzi Aburedwan in a French conservatory. The two built Kamandjati (Arabic for violinist) music schools across the West Bank, teaching 500 children. Most of Jenin’s 100 students learn for free on borrowed instruments.
“I have a dream to continue on with our students and for our students to become teachers,” Staiti said as he buffed a Yamaha piano in his office.
“When I prove my identity as a Palestinian through this peaceful movement, I can show the world that the Israeli occupation must end,” he said.
Not everyone, however, has welcomed Jenin's artistic revival. In April last year an arsonist burned down the Kamandjati school. Police have yet to make any arrests. A few months later the Freedom Theater was also set alight. Zubeidi, too, has his limits for Jenin’s arts.
“We will not show any film that shows a relationship between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said. As for Khatib’s decision, he said, “I would give my own heart to save a Jew. But if he is going to continue occupying us I will tear out his heart and his father’s heart as well.”
Still, support for Jenin’s arts is strong. Hamad said when he consulted with Jenin’s City Hall, run by Hamas, he was surprised to receive support and even an electrical engineer to help the renovation. Palestinian President Salam Fayyad cut the cinema’s ribbon.
“If there is another intifada, the theater must go on,” said Kamandjati's Staiti. “The cinema must go on … Palestine has to have Haydn, Bach and Beethoven.”